We’re on a mission to see more of Ireland, to go to the sorts of places, which, if we ever thought about at all when last we lived here over ten years ago, we would have dismissed as the sorts of places tourists went to. Places with castles and visitor centres, or interpretive centres, whatever they’re called. Back then the new Ireland we were interested in had sushi trains in the Purple Flag Area behind Grafton St., and the Pavilion redevelopment in Dun Laoghaire. It had roads bypassing old midlands towns like Loughrea and Moate so that all of us Celtic Tiger cubs could get from the M50 to Galway quicker (although the public jacks in Loughrea would surely be missed by those who used to ply that route). Even the ferry to Aran was a new catamaran made in Perth, Australia, with TVs and wifi, a step up from the odoriferous fishing boat Dad and I went out there on in 1982. This year I’m travelling with my own kids (and Tina, of course) as tourists, and we’re on a mission. So we end up going to places like the Ferns, in Co. Wexford.
When I was 16, I cycled to Arklow with Andrew ‘Spacer’ Connolly on the N11. We hit Wicklow after a couple of hours and just kept going because we were young and it felt so good to be young, not that we would ever have put it like that at the time. Nowadays of course I couldn’t pedal that much in two days, never mind one, but that’s ok because one fine weekend recently my Mum was out west on a bridge trip and we had the use of her car. There’s a new motorway, the M11, that shadows the coast from just past Newtownmountkennedy, Ireland’s Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, and goes past Wicklow, past Arklow, deep into Wexford, on which you can reach the Anglo-Norman heart of Ireland in just over an hour. On the Saturday morning, with blue skies lined with white streaks of clouds, that’s exactly what we did, because this is the Ireland we’re on a mission to see.
Ferns lies only a mile or two past the end of the motorway. It’s as if they built all this infrastructure just to expedite getting to the erstwhile capital of Leinster. We made our way straight to the town castle where we found two guys waiting for us in the visitor centre. Friendly souls, they were interested in knowing a) where we were from and b) how we’d found out about the place. TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet books on Ireland from the library was the answer to the latter question. After a quick look at the tapestry, made in 1997 “by a group of local ladies to relate the story of the town in stitch work”, we took the tour.
Since there was no-one else there, it was just us and Graham who proceeded to the moat for the first stage. He sat us on a bench right outside what remained of the eight-hundred year old castle (not much), and told us about Dermot Mac Murrough and his fateful appeal to Strongbow for help against the local kings. Al and Eoin absorbed all the horrible history on offer – sieges, moats, even exploding lime bombs – in stunned silence.
It hadn’t looked like much from the outside, but one of the four original towers was still intact enough to be climbed up and into, and it exhibited an impressive amount of structure and ornamentation, given the state, indeed the absence, of much of the rest of the compound. In the tiny chapel halfway up the tower he pointed out gargoyle-like carved minor deities leering down on those whose attention had drifted during prayers and who innocently glanced up at the roof in boredom.
Emerging into the daylight at the top of the tower, Mount Leinster a few miles away, there we chatted in a collegial manner with ol’ Graham before he had to take care of the next bunch of tourists. A swashbuckling start to the day: we were amazed to have just spent forty-five minutes in a place that from road looked like you’d be hard pressed to spend five of them. Graham reminded us to review the place on TripAdvisor, and we told him that considering that’s how we found out about the facilities here it was the least we could do, and indeed I did write a review later that weekend.
Parsimony has become our byword, a quality we turned to good use in the old town of Enniscorthy. Sitting out on a tiny square we picnicked on sandwiches in the lee of Vinegar Hill. A nice, town to have lunch in, hilly and old, and it had only cost us the price of having to park in. Tina took over the driving after lunch as we followed the Slaney south for a while. Where it escapes out into the delta at Wexford town we pressed on to the deep south of the county, down to the bottom of Hook peninsula, the apogee of today’s drive. You could see the easternmost part of the coast of county Waterford across the water. Of course we were also near the very spot, on the other side of Hook peninsula, where the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland began with the landing at Baginbun in 1169. ‘At Baginbun Ireland was lost and won’, with the sun still very much involved in the day’s business.
There was a restaurant there, but we didn’t need to restore ourselves. The thing you do here is circumperambulate Hook Lighthouse, “the oldest operational lighthouse in the world” according to the Wexford Heritage Trail people, on the limestone outcrops which make for eminently walkable and climbable steps and layers. I didn’t notice any seals, dolphins, or whales, but I did see some scuba divers. Over eight-hundred years this lighthouse has been here, at the mouth of the Three Sisters river system, keeping us safe, although, worryingly, the area is also known as “the graveyard of a thousand ships.”
Wheeling our touring bus back to the north, we had one more stop to make, not far up the road at the head of the Hook peninsula. If the name Tintern Abbey is familiar to you, it may be because of the well-known one in Wales. But The Office of Public Works has restored the Tintern Abbey built by Cistercian monks on Bannow Bay in the town of Saltmills, near New Ross, which took its name from the Welsh original. Considering the name of the game for us is family trips to heritage sites, we bought a yearly OPW family pass for €60, a third of which we instantly saved since the entry fee for us here at the abbey was €20.
And we were tired, it’s true, but we managed a walk through the abbey, which is even older than Ferns Castle, a coffee in the courtyard, and a stroll through the adjacent two-hundred year old Colclough (pronounced coke-lee) Georgian Walled Garden before calling it a day and starting on the long road north. It would take us two hours to get home. But it was a day well spent, hitting the heritage trail as we’d done, and seeing old castles and even older abbeys. We’d even had lunch in “the finest place in the world”, as Enniscorthy is described in Ulysses. You see, we’re back here in Ireland, going to places like the sunny south-east, on days that seem to last forever, days like today, to see stuff like this.